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Best Practice Makes Perfect

A collaboration with Domino developers about how to do it and how to get it right in Domino

The recent Quetchup debacle has got me wondering about exactly how companies end up making extremely boneheaded maneuvers that change customers into permanent enemies.

In case you hadn't got the word, Quetchup is yet another social networking site, but with a difference: reportedly, after you enter your email login information so that you can "find out which of your friends already use Quetchup," they harvest all the addresses in your address book and send out email to all of them, purporting to be from you and purporting to be with your knowledge and permission, inviting them to join.

I just created a throwaway Yahoo email and signed up for Quetchup to see how it really worked. It is possible, if you read carefully, to tell that it's going to email everyone on your behalf; it is, however, the default action if you zip through all the screens without reading carefully. I don't know if they've changed their system in response to the recent outrage, or if this is how it's been all along, but it's easy to see how a lot of people might've not realized what they were going to do. If you want to judge for yourself, here are a screenshot and another screenshot of what people do see. There's another screen "offering" to harvest addresses from Outlook or Outlook Express, but that didn't work for me when I tried it with Outlook Express (I'm not an Outlook user, probably to nobody's surprise, but I set up Express with one fake address in my address book just to see what this would do). So I'm not sure whether they treat those addresses the same way.

Whether or not this is the original UI, I think given the magnitude of what they're proposing to do, it's not clear enough. That's the sort of thing that calls for bold red letters half an inch high. It's not at all surprising that a lot of people don't realize they're about to send email to everyone. And the fact that Quetchup is still doing this even in the face of customer outrage and loads of bad publicity, makes me wonder what their managers are using instead of brains. It's not like it's difficult to improve this. Even just changing the default from "everyone is checked" to "nobody is checked" in that second screen would really remove most basis for complaint.

Fortunately, this sort of thing doesn't happen all that often, but when it does, I wonder. It's unlikely that nobody at Quetchup realized this was a bad idea. Rather, I suspect they have an organizational structure that makes it difficult for dissenting voices to be heard and/or fails to disseminate information about their plans and solicit comment. It's possible one person with too much authority designed this and put it up without significant oversight from the rest of the organization.

Another common problem is organizational issues leading to poor learning, leading companies to repeat past errors and persist in losing strategies. Sony's spyware is an example of this. It made a lot of people howling mad -- me included -- and Thomas Hesse, the president of that branch of Sony, exacerbated the situation by making idiotic comments in the press. The company was sued many times, and it must have been very expensive. Yet, amazingly, Sony, apparently having learned nothing, has recently made the exact same mistake again! Furthermore, based on the most recent news I've been able to find about him, Thomas Hesse is in the same job and in fact has recently been given more responsibility. If he were my employee, his ass would've been out the door the day after his interview with NPR. This just confirms me in my existing policy to never let anything made by Sony within ten meters of my computer.

It's actually a fairly simple rule that everyone at Sony should've had drilled into them after the first time -- don't mess with the rootkit! Sony apparently contracts out all its software development, but after the first time, you make that rule part of your acceptance criteria. How hard can it be to let all employees who write these contracts know not to do that there again?

What's needed to prevent this kind of catastrophe? You have to be able to identify who in your company is doing what kind of work, so that if there's something they need to know, you know who to tell. You need to have communities of interest so that word gets around. Your employees need to get to know of any important news that affects your business. These are all the sorts of things that can be addressed by technology, and specifically the kinds of technology coming out from IBM -- Quickr and so forth.

Corporate culture, practices and structure are also critical to success. Executives have to be accountable for their mistakes as well as rewarded for their successes. And non-executives as well. Things need to be arranged such that employees have a personal stake in the success of their company and the authority to call a halt if they see a problem. I think of the engineer who was working on the Quetchup registration pages. Unless entirely self-deluded, he or she had to have been thinking, while designing those pages, "Man, this is not going to go down well with customers." And then, apparently, adding, "Well, it's not my problem. They give me a spec and I do what they tell me."

Please, folks, if you're asked to do something idiotic, make it your problem. And if that doesn't fly in your company, you're working for the wrong company.

Andre Guirard | 14 September 2007 01:00:00 PM ET | Home, Plymouth, MN, USA | Comments (5)

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